Call of the Reed Warbler is a book that takes time to read. Over the past few months, as I’ve been absorbing all 500 plus pages, the country has simultaneously watched the farmers of New South Wales suffer through what has been referred to by some as the worst drought in living memory.
The tagline boldly summarises the subject as ‘A new agriculture; a new Earth’. To be honest, before reading this book I would never have expected to write about agriculture and a love for the environment alongside one another; these were formerly two separate fields. There was the environment: conservation, biodiversity, healthy ecosystems, and there was farming: ploughing, machinery, harvest. Though I’m yet to meet a farmer who doesn’t love the natural world they work in, I never really saw these worlds as overlapping.
Author Charles Massy believes these fields should overlap. A research associate at Australian National University and the manager of his 4500-acre family property in the Monaro region of NSW, Massy has dedicated years to writing this opus on radical farming practices collectively known as regenerative agriculture.
The hefty work is divided into three sections. First, Massy chronicles the history of land use and management in Australia before and after European colonisation. He then dives into a catalogue of case studies in which he speaks with farming families from all over the country, visiting their farms to learn the unique ways in which they are managing their land. The final part of the book is contemplative of how we as a species can change our attitudes towards farming, our communities, what we eat and our place in the environment.
The heart of Massy’s premise is that it is possible to farm in ways that don’t take from the land and degrade the wider environment, but actually promote biodiversity and work in harmony with nature to provide greater yields and better resilience (for example, to drought). The idea that farming could not only serve the essential function of food production in our society but restore degraded ecosystems is a powerful one.
As this is a book about farming in Australia, I did wonder whether Indigenous Australians would be given space in the narrative. It was pleasing to see that Massy makes respectful reference throughout not only to historical Aboriginal land management but the land’s continuing significance to Australia’s First Peoples. I do, however, wonder if there could have been more space for Indigenous voices in the text.
The tone of the book is ever hopeful and inspiring. By sharing this series of personal experiences, Massy explains that he aims to provide not just an ideology but a practical insight into possible approaches to galvanise his readers. He is a true believer in the power of stories to effect change.
However, almost everywhere he goes his subjects recount the local opposition they’ve faced from other farmers, whose responses to their alternative methods range from bafflement to hostility. When flicking through other readers’ reactions to this book, I found that some newspaper reviews were generally positive, but one farmer’s blog in particular had a lengthy, detailed critique of Massy’s work, which the blogger found offensive and alienating.
My experience would push me more towards the former camp, but I also live on a working property and can see how Massy’s passionately expressed argument might provoke defensiveness. I once had a university lecturer who said that if you ever use the word ‘Gaia’ when writing about the environment, you’re going to immediately lose a lot of your readers. Massy isn’t afraid of wording that evokes spirituality, as is evident when he refers to ‘Mother Nature’ and the principle of biophilia. But he is aware of this throughout and openly criticises contempt for a spiritual appreciation of nature, which is a symptom of what he calls the ‘Mechanical’ mind.
The ‘Emergent’ mind, on the other hand, is what Massy terms the philosophical shift he is witnessing in Australian agriculture that seeks to work with and improve the land on which it is based. In its simplest form, it is a method of farming that encourages revegetation and the return of wildlife, aims to use little or no chemicals (such as herbicides or fertilisers) and minimally invasive practices (not ploughing, for example), and works with the Australian climate. It is surprising to see how often farming families have discovered that taking a more hands-off approach and allowing the ecosystem to self-organise has ultimately proven far more efficient.
Massy calls this movement an ‘underground insurgency’, as it is a revolution occurring from the bottom up. Individuals and families have fallen like dominoes into new practices with ever-increasing momentum and are the ones who are ultimately responsible for enacting change in the farming landscape. This includes Massy himself, who laments that he is running out of time to do everything that he’d like to do with his property; he feels like he has only just passed kindergarten.
The title of the book is true to its heart. While Call of the Reed Warbler is about agricultural practices, it is also about the Australian environment and our place in it. The dream of the title – to hear a rare reed warbler calling in diverse, species-rich agricultural land – is the dream of the book, its author and its subjects. To facilitate the achievement of that dream, Massy has envisioned the evolution of farming into a practice that works in harmony with nature.
Purchase your copy of Call of the Reed Warbler from University of Queensland Press.
Banner image courtesy of JJ Harrison ([email protected]) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.